The pair of concerts that William Christie and his ensemble, Les Arts Florissants, offered at Carnegie Hall this week made me a little sad.
Not the concerts themselves: They were excellent, occasionally exquisite. What depressed me was the question of whether there’s a future in New York for this pathbreaking early-music group, founded in France four decades ago by Christie, an American.
Its longtime bases when on tour in the city, Lincoln Center and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, have jolted away from the kind of music programming that was until recently a core part of their identities — and the kind that Les Arts Florissants embodies. But this ensemble gives the lie to the suggestion, made by certain administrators, that presenting music of the past necessarily means sleepy renditions of the standards.
Sure, Christie and Les Arts Florissants don’t do contemporary pieces. Their repertoire, with its founding specialty in the French Baroque of Lully, Rameau and Charpentier, doesn’t check fashionable boxes of diversity, equity and inclusion.
But that doesn’t mean they are reactionary, dull, irrelevant or unworthy of being presented alongside the best of the present day. For decades, they have been fulfilling the task of any truly important cultural institution: opening up new worlds of beauty and excitement, both emotional and intellectual. Not merely rehashing what’s known, but introducing modern audiences to works and composers overlooked for centuries.
Les Arts Florissants opera productions, in particular, have been deep and poignant — and very vibrant — excavations. But the organizations with the spaces and resources to put them on in America’s cultural capital no longer seem to think that’s a meaningful endeavor. That’s a loss for New York.
So gratitude is due to Carnegie, one of the city’s few remaining major presenters of early music, for offering the ensemble a place to land — at least for the moment and in spare numbers. On Tuesday, Christie and the young violinist Théotime Langlois de Swarte appeared upstairs, at Weill Recital Hall. And on Wednesday, Christie led slightly (but not much) beefier forces downstairs, at Zankel Hall.
Christie and Langlois de Swarte gave a version of the violin-harpsichord program they recorded a few years ago, featuring sonatas from the early 18th century that demonstrate the influence that passionate, tumblingly virtuosic Italian music had on the austere, even severe dances of 17th-century France.
The revelation of that album — and the best part of Tuesday’s recital — was the work of Jean Baptiste Senaillé, a favorite of the aristocracy in his day but now an obscurity. He was particularly adept at inflaming restrained French elegance with Italian intensity, as in the inexorably winding violin line of a G minor sonata’s prelude, exploding in arpeggios that lead to a fiery yet stylish gavotte.
Langlois de Swarte, his tone clear but with an appealing hint of wiry bite, played with vivacity and wit. And the Adagio harpsichord introduction to a sonata in C minor showed off Christie’s magic touch, his phrasing noble yet gentle.
Both this and Wednesday’s program were canny: short enough to do without an intermission, yet focused enough to feel immersive. So many programs these days valorize variety, but to spend a bit over an hour in a single sound world can be a profound experience.
Better to be left wanting more. But I ever so slighted rued that, since it consisted mostly of selections of movements, Tuesday’s recital included only one full Senaillé sonata. (The recording boasted four, alongside two by his slightly younger contemporary, Jean-Marie Leclair.)
On Wednesday, Christie led from the organ an ensemble of, at its most robust, nine male singers and seven players in a set of sacred works by Charpentier, whose opera “Les Arts Florissants” gave the group its name.
This was, a little belatedly, music for the Lenten period, beginning with Charpentier’s beautiful, sober yet luscious set of 10 “Meditations for Lent” — a kind of proto-Passion that charts the story of the Stations of the Cross. Soloists sing some of the lines of biblical dialogue, with the narration given a hypnotic setting for groups of voices.
In these meditations and three “lessons,” traditionally sung as part of evening services during Holy Week, the instrumentalists were superbly restrained. And, if none of the individual voices were particularly impressive, the choir achieved remarkable, moving effects of hovering gauziness and almost whispered sweetness; the sound was sometimes mellow, sometimes thrillingly emphatic. Precision of attack let even this modest-size group take on fearsome grandeur when singing of the ripping of the temple’s curtain as Jesus was crucified.
The almost excruciating impact of tightly shifting harmonies matched the accounts of pain and torture in the texts. The hall lights were dimmed almost to darkness; the mood, unbroken by applause until the end, was rapt.
It, like Tuesday’s recital, was a performance to be celebrated. But it was hard not to feel like these bite-size concerts were whetting the appetite for a full meal that may never come this way again.
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